Connection as Confrontation

Ryan Fong

 

Earlier this year, in the immediate wake of the events in Charlottesville, medieval studies professor Dorothy Kim issued a call to her colleagues, urging them to address how “the medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students.” [1] Arguing that the medieval studies classroom is an important space to disrupt these false narratives and distortions of history, Kim emphatically asserts that to remain silent and neutral is to be complicit. As such, she challenges all teachers who consider themselves anti-racist to recognize their duty to intervene and to acknowledge the important role they play in either tacitly supporting or actively interrupting the disturbing rise of militant white supremacy.

Although obviously not a medieval studies scholar, I nevertheless found myself nodding in vigorous agreement as I read Kim’s essay. Certainly, as a fellow Asian-American working in a field that is white-dominated on many levels, I identified and empathized with her argument and position. But more specifically, her call struck me as one that applied with equal urgency to our teaching within Victorian studies. While Victorian iconography is not being deployed in the same manner by white supremacist groups as medieval symbols, our period is nevertheless one that is deeply connected to the current political moment—as the Victorian era saw the codification of scientific racism, the rapid expansion of capitalist imperialism, and the violent enactment of imperialist exploitation and settler occupations. Thus, our work in our classrooms, which has never not been political, must be understood as inextricable from the challenges and controversies that are unfolding in the world outside of them.

Although Charlottesville was an important flashpoint moment that illustrated the necessity of this work in particularly urgent ways, I was inspired to be more explicit about addressing and resisting white supremacy in my courses many months before. Indeed, as I prepared to teach my Victorian literature survey course in the winter quarter of 2017—in what ended up being the final weeks of the U.S. presidential election—I decided to redesign the course so that students would be explicitly required to make connections between the Victorian period and our own, by tracing how the salient questions that confronted the people of the nineteenth century are fundamentally tied to the political conversations and debates we are having today. While these issues were not limited to discussions of race, I wanted to make sure that we interrogated and discussed constructions of whiteness and racial otherness within the nineteenth-century throughout the course.

To do so, I took inspiration from Roger Whitson’s model, which he describes in detail in his V21 essay on “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature During a Trump Presidency.” [2] In his model, he builds thematic units of various texts that incorporate a contemporary documentary film, and I thought that this strategy brilliantly provided students with a deliberate structure that would ask them to make connections and to understand the stakes of our discussions in powerful and explicit ways. Thus, in the final version of my syllabus, I led the students through four units, which approximated Whitson’s but which also roughly aligned with the “Victorian Issues” presented in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. In each of these units, a Victorian novel acted as a focus text, which was presented along alongside literary and historical documents from across the period and was then compared, at the end of the unit, with a relevant and connected film.

In the first unit, we focused on “The City, Poverty, and Criminality,” using Oliver Twist as our anchor text. As we read Dickens’s novel alongside readings that ranged from Engels to Mayhew to Nordau, we talked extensively about its depictions of poverty and crime and how the novel critiques the Victorian workhouse system while it also bolsters middle-class ideologies about class identity and Christian morality. Spending a great deal of time on the novel’s depiction of Fagin, in particular, we also unpacked how crime is imagined through racial and religious difference, in ways that anticipate the degeneration theories that emerged at the end of the century. While presenting the materials in this fashion meant that I needed to be very careful about noting their various contexts across the period, their combination nevertheless allowed the students to synthesize many key ideas about how race was understood and constructed by the Victorians, especially in connection to urban crime. Furthermore, students could see the complex and sometimes contradictory ways this unfolded—especially in Dickens’s treatment of Fagin, which are so problematic across the text and yet so offer incredibly affecting and powerful moments as well, such as when his fearful thoughts in his final night in the jail cell are movingly rendered for the reader in intimate detail.

This set of discussions helped to set the Victorian context for our viewing of the documentary 13th, which chronicles the development of the U.S. prison industrial complex from the Reconstruction era and traces its disproportionate effects on African-Americans. In this way, by moving through the novel and the clustered texts and then culminating in the documentary, this unit helped students develop the skills to articulate how Victorian literature can help us understand and critically examine the imbrication of race, class, and criminality in our own moment and how our own historical context can help us see the Victorian period in a new and richer light. It also allowed them to think transatlantically, by connecting the British-centered materials of my class to the history of race in the United States, from the late nineteenth-century to the present. Most importantly, however, this approach and unit refused to allow students to avoid the issue of race in our discussions and to bracket my class and our texts as isolated from their lives and from the structures of racism and mass incarceration present in the world around us.

In each of the remaining three units, we replicated this process, and we incorporated a discussion and acknowledgement of their intersections with race in various ways. In the second unit, we discussed industrialization and environmental catastrophe, focusing on Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and reading it alongside essays on pollution, poetry by the Victorian working classes, and a documentary about Mexican factory workers who engage in environmental activism. The third unit compared H. Rider Haggard’s depictions of South Africa in King Solomon’s Mines to other texts by colonial and indigenous writers and to a recent documentary on the “blood diamond” trade, while the fourth unit charted connections between Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a range of texts by Browning, Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Harriet Jacobs (among others) on gendered and sexual violence, and a documentary film about campus sexual assault.

Based on the course evaluations and students’ comments said during our final synthesizing class discussion, the course was tremendously successful for my students. I was pleased to hear many state that they had not only developed a deeper understanding of the nineteenth century over the course of the term, but also that they now realized why studying the Victorian period was so crucial to comprehending our own historical moment. And while Whitson’s approach is not the only one that could produce these results, I was especially glad to see that my students found it to be a useful structure that made the class rewarding and informative, even though they came into the class with diverse political orientations and even though the course materials and its framing made my own political leanings clear.

Certainly, the fact that I found such a receptive audience was made more likely by the kind of institution where I teach: a small liberal arts college, with long history of support for progressive issues and for initiatives promoting civic engagement and social justice. Teaching in this context meant that I had the privilege of knowing that my department and institution would support me should I receive backlash, but even with that knowledge, I understood that teaching in this way was a risk. As an untenured faculty member and one of the few queer-identified faculty members of color, I am always acutely aware of my various vulnerabilities, but I felt that these were gambles that were necessary to make and were ones in which I had both a personal and professional stake.

Indeed, in a political culture where all of us who teach in colleges and universities are under intense scrutiny and attack, these are hazards that we must embrace. As scholars of Victorian literature and culture, I believe we are in a special position to model how historical and literary analyses can be used to ways to meaningfully engage with the wider world. Additionally and more specifically, they are vital tools for understanding how and why racial ideologies operate in the ways that they do and how they can and must be disrupted. And if we choose not to do this work in our teaching, then we are refusing to stand with our students and colleagues who are most vulnerable to the violences of white supremacy. In this sense, naming and taking a stand against racism in our classrooms is not a luxury we can do without, because not acting is a form of acting too.

[1] Dorothy Kim, “Teaching Medieval Studies in a Time of White Supremacy.” <http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/08/teaching-medieval-studies-in-time-of.html>

[2] Roger Whitson, “Teaching Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Literature During a Trump Presidency.” <http://v21collective.org/vtn-whitson/>

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